Nov 5, 2012 9:52 PM by Zach Thaxton

Cheated at the pump: are gas pumps giving you what you're paying for?

Are you getting what you pay for when you fill up at the gas station?  "You have no way of checking, other than trusting what they inspect," lamented Tina Bretanus of Colorado Springs as she pumped more than 16 gallons into her running-on-empty SUV.  "I wonder about it all the time because it's costing me $60 to fill up my car when it used to cost me $30."

Like you, News 5 has heard the suspicion:  that some gas station owners are tweaking the calibration on their pumps to charge customers for a little more gas than they're actually pumping.  "Probably more than 50 percent" are overcharging customers, guessed Stephanie Schultz of Fairbanks, Alaska, in Colorado Springs for her wedding on Halloween day.  When we tagged along with state gas pump inspectors in late October, the results were surprising.

We caught up with Rich Holcomb, a Fuel Inspector with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, on October 30 as he inspected pumps at the Acorn Food Store at 8th Street and Cimarron Street in Colorado Springs.  He is one of seven full-time inspectors who travel statewide all year long, inspecting the more than 2,300 retail gas stations and fleet fuel-ups in Colorado.  At each pump, Holcomb dispenses five gallons into special cylinders in the bed of a modified pickup truck.  For each 5-gallon pump, calibration must not be off by more than six cubic inches, or 0.006 gallons -- the equivalent of six teaspoons.  The results Holcomb finds are consistent and surprising.

"Generally, the dispensers give it away more than they take it from the customers," Holcomb said.  "Probably more than 90 percent of the time, it's in the plus side, which is in the customer's favor."

News 5 utilized the Colorado Open Records Act to obtain inspection records for Fiscal Year 2012 (July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2012) for the State of Colorado as a whole and Colorado Springs specifically.  During that time period, 1,609 of Colorado's 2,329 active retail facilities were inspected, accounting for 35,997 pumps overall.  Of those, a total of 433 pumps were miscalibrated, or "out of tolerance," accounting for 1.2 percent of all pumps.  Of the 433 miscalibrated pumps, 128, or 0.35 percent, were found to be taking from customers.  The other 305 miscalibrated pumps were found to be giving free gas to customers.

In Colorado Springs, 164 of the area's 195 active retail facilities were inspected, accounting for 3,726 pumps overall.  A total of 81 pumps were found to be miscalibrated.  Only five, or 0.13 percent, were found to be taking from customers, and of those five, four were pumps at fleet fuel-ups not accessible by the general public.  The lone traditional gas station pump found to be taking from customers at the time of inspection on July 25, 2011 was pump number 7 at the Sinclair station at 2801 North Nevada Avenue near Fillmore Street.  At the time of the inspection, it dispensed 0.046 gallons less than it charged for in a 5-gallon test pump -- the equivalent of 46 teaspoons, or 7.6 fluid ounces.  That Sinclair is now closed.  The other 76 miscalibrated pumps were giving away extra gas to customers.

Holcomb says most of the miscalibrated pumps are older ones.  "As the items wear, they drift further into the customer's favor," Holcomb said.  "It's a mechanical, man-made device destined for failure, and they do, at times, have a mechanical failure, but generally the mechanical failure is in the customer's favor, not on the company's side."

Holcomb says privately-run gas stations are more likely to have miscalibrated pumps because the cost to have them professionally recalibrated is often more expensive than the loss they take by under-charging customers.  "I think you'll notice that the mom-and-pop (gas station) has less money to spend on the equipment to keep it up perfect," Holcomb said.

By contrast, large gas stations run by corporations are most likely to be precisely calibrated, Holcomb says.  "They want to make sure it's right because if a meter goes wild and they start giving gas away, that's their profit going away," Holcomb said.

"That does give me peace-of-mind," said Bretanus.  "It makes me feel a little bit better at the pump."

Below is the list of the five Colorado Springs gas pumps found to be taking from customers in a 5-gallon test pump:

Chief Petroleum (fleet) - 3455 Kimball - Pump #9 (6/5/12) - taking 0.012 gallons
Chief Petroleum (fleet) - 3455 Kimball - Pump #2 (6/5/12) - taking 0.009 gallons
Chief Petroleum (fleet) - 3455 Kimball - Pump #1 (6/5/12) - taking 0.007 gallons
Chief Petroleum (fleet) - 910 W. Vermijo - Pump #2 (10/3/11) - taking 0.011 gallons
Sinclair (retail) - 2801 N. Nevada Ave. - Pump #7 (7/25/11)  - taking 0.046 gallons

Holcomb says he and the other inspectors with the Department of Labor and Employement respond to customer complaints on-demand, usually within a week.  If you encounter a pump you suspect is not dispensing what you're paying for, call the number on the inspection sticker on the gas pump itself.  Pumps inspected in 2012 have a green sticker.  Pumps inspected in 2011 have a blue sticker.


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